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Character and Meaning

Whatever the literary characters are, they are essential to the meaning of any literary work. By getting to know them, and how they function, we learn something about people and life.

As you meet these characters, determine whether they are:

Flat (one-dimensional) or rounded (three-dimensional)
An individual or a stereotype
Static (unchanging throughout the story) or dynamic (changing)

Other terms to be familiar with: protagonist (central character), antagonist (source of conflict for the central character) and foil (helping us to understand another character by the way the one character "plays off" another).

Meeting characters in literature: point of view

When you determine who is telling the story, you have discovered the narrative point of view. This is important because the narrator controls just what and how much is told, the kind of information given to the reader, and even the shape of the work itself.

The two major points of view are first-person and third-person.

First-person narrators

First-person narrators are one of the characters in the story. They may be either a major or minor character. Whichever character tells the story, he or she has limited knowledge. It follows that this will affect just what we learn.

Another concern with a first-person narrator is bias. Since the character/narrator tells the story from his or her own perspective, there may be distortion or omission. This raises the question of reliability. Can we trust what the narrator tells us?

One of the strengths of the first-person point of view is a sense of directness. We get the information first hand, as if we were there when the events occurred. We may find the narrator addressing us (the readers) or we may find a dramatic context where we overhear what is said to another character.

What difference is there between a major and minor character as narrator? The major characters may have prejudices or needs to justify their own actions to themselves which may distort what we're told. The minor characters observe the action without being an integral part of it, and they lack essential information. We may have to guess about what really happened or is happening.

Third-person narrators

Third-person narrators are outsiders (i.e., not active participants in the story). As a result, our experience is less direct. The narrator may enter into the thoughts and feelings of various characters or may provide an objective reporting of the events.

Some variations on the third-person point of view:

Omniscient: the narrator, along with knowing the events of the story, knows the thoughts and feelings of the other characters and is able to share these with us.

Limited: the narrator focuses on the thoughts and feelings of only one character. We may find an objective report of the events or we may learn of them from the viewpoint of one character. All other characters are seen from the outside only.

Objective: the narrator simply reports what he or she observes, including conversations and descriptions of the scene.

Dialogue: conversation provides our information. We overhear but are not told.

Questions a reader should ask:

We can learn about a character's mental, emotional, and moral traits from either direct or indirect characterization.

Direct characterization: the narrator or another character tells us what a person is like.

Indirect characterization: requires the reader to look for clues that reveal a character's traits and motivations. To fully understand a character and a story, we should look at

We must listen to what the narrator tells us and look for any indirect clues in order to understand a character. When we learn how to do this, we are learning how to understand "real" people and even ourselves a little better.

To learn about a character in relation to a story, 1) determine the narrative point of view, 2) get a sense of the events, and 3) decide who are the most fully developed characters. Then reread looking for the clues mentioned above. Why do characters do what they do? What are the motivations, attitudes, or personality traits which might explain their behavior?

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© Scott Foll 2000. All rights reserved.